Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Guilt and triggering

Content warning – abuse mechanics

There’s nothing like being triggered to bring on the guilt. It kicks in for me around any situation where I experience panic, but once I’m into flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, the guilt comes thick and heavy. I experience the trigger as my responsibility, my fault. I’ll end up apologising to the person who triggered me, for my being so unreasonable and for over-reacting. This makes it hard to even ask people not to do things that bring on high levels of panic in me.

It’s not an accident. The situations where I was most hurt, I was explicitly blamed for what happened. Complaining is a sure fire way to make an abusive situation even more dangerous. And it was, always, always my fault. Maybe because of what I did or didn’t do at the time. Maybe because of a comment I made years previously. Perhaps my being too tired to articulate things clearly made it my fault for not being clear enough. Perhaps I was upset over emotional pressure, which I should not have been because it was fair and justified, for reasons. You get the picture.

This is normal. Abusers blame their victims. It is an effective strategy to keep the victim in place and stop them from seeking help or going to the police. I was told many times that the problem was me – I was unreasonable, over-reacting, and worse still I was told that I was emotionally abusive, an emotional blackmailer, manipulative, cold, calculating… So when things go wrong, one of the places my triggers take me is back into that deep sense of shame, guilt and responsibility. It is even worse for child victims because they have nothing to set it against and no way of even wondering if what’s happening isn’t their fault.

It is so hard to ask for help when you think everything is your fault. It is so hard to ask for kindness or care when you feel like you don’t deserve it. There are regular shoutouts for people with mental health problems to ask for help and speak about our troubles, but that’s really hard to do if abuse is how you got here. It’s hard to ask for help when what damaged you in the first place was also blamed on you. If expressing distress has been dangerous for you, that’s an enduring barrier to asking for help.

The only things I know of that truly help with this are as follows. Boost self esteem and confidence – make an active effort to lift people and they may be able to handle all of this better. Take triggers seriously, even if they don’t make sense to you. Your understanding the process is irrelevant. If someone trusts you enough to flag up what triggers them, it means they think you won’t deliberately hurt or punish them. If you can honour that, you might be able to do a lot to help them feel safe and to heal. And if someone gets very weird with you and starts apologising for things that were not their fault, and especially if they seem scared when apologising, it’s a pretty reliable sign that they have some serious issues and need your care.


Different flavours of panic

Not all panics are the same. I’ve been exploring the different ways in which panic shows up for me and what the implications are for dealing with it. Panic can happen for all sorts of reasons, and my list won’t be exhaustive or true for everyone but I hope by sharing it I can give someone else a place to start.

Hormone panics. I’m somewhere in the menopause sea (I have no idea where). I get intense hormone blasts sometimes, and they tend to make me panic. Recognising them as hormone-induced helps me weather them. Otherwise, soothing drinks are about the only thing I’ve found useful.

Overload panics. These happen when I’m exhausted, mentally or physically. Just hitting exhaustion can be enough to do it. If some extra thing needs doing when I’ve already hit my limits, this will also really panic me and make me largely useless. My best coping methods are to be clear with the people around me when I’m approaching the edges, and to be clear that I’m having overload panic if it kicks off. I have to accept that I can’t push through these to do the things, I have to wait until I’m better resourced and calmer.

Panic caused by triggers. These are often much harder to explain to anyone else while they’re happening because they bring up intense intrusive thoughts and flashbacks. The first priority is to get away from whatever seems unsafe. I’m working on being clearer with anyone who might come into contact with these that I need them to help me feel safe and to be quick to react if they’ve accidentally triggered me. Feeling safer will bring the panic down, and without that I’m stuck and can spiral through panic, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks for hours.

Triggered panics fall into two broad categories. One is where I feel to blame over things that aren’t my fault, or responsible for everything. The less power I have to sort things out, the more triggering this is. The second area is around loss of body autonomy. The conventional wisdom around this sort of panic is that it is down to the person experiencing it to work on recovering. On the whole I think I’d do a lot better without being triggered in the first place, so, I’m talking more about my boundaries, what its fair for me to take on, and what I need to have change. I’ve dealt with people in the past who triggered me and were very clear it wasn’t their job to do better. I’ve come to the conclusion that if anything of that shape happens again, I will remove those people from my life with all speed.

Part of what got me damaged in the first place was people ignoring boundaries and forcing unreasonable responsibilities on to me. This in turn makes it hard to flag up distress in those areas, making it harder for anyone who wants to not get into that kind of mess with me. With a back history full of being trained that people who hurt me were entitled to do that, I’m re-drawing my lines. People who want my time, care, energy and resources are going to have to treat me in ways that make that possible. Anyone who tells me they can’t be walking on eggshells all the time, or anything similar, will be out of the mix. I can’t afford it, and I recognise, finally, that no one is entitled to treat me as disposable in that way. Feeling worthless is part of what underpins the panic, but I do not have to accept being treated as worthless and I can say no.


Managing the energy

For some months now, I’ve really been struggling with energy levels. It’s affected what work I can do, and how far I can walk. It’s also been depressing and worrying. I’ve been making a lot of changes in order to try and handle things better and in the hopes of being able to recover from this to some degree.

I notice that I tend to think of poor energy as a head issue. It’s one I’ve previously dealt with by applying willpower and pushing through. Like a lot of people dealing with fatigue, I have a history of not being taken very seriously and being encouraged to think of it as a personal failing, not a body issue. I find that when I treat low energy as something that is happening to my body – not as a failure to make enough effort – I can improve things. Mostly it’s about food and rest.

Increasing my food intake often helps. Even if it doesn’t solve the energy problem, it tends to ease the panic and depression that go with having run out of energy. Toast is my friend. Fruit is also good. Plant-milks are easy to digest and sometimes biscuits are the answer. I have to remind myself that comfort eating doesn’t make me a terrible person, and that I am allowed to do things that help me feel less horrible.

Rest makes a lot of odds, and as I’ve explored in previous posts (Doing Nothing) sometimes flopping in a heap is about the only option I have. I’ve established that how and when I rest makes a lot of odds. It is currently fair for me to assume that I’ll get three or four hours in a day with good concentration and scope to be active, and that I might get a few hours beyond that where I can do some things in a more limited way – reading or crafting perhaps. I can no longer just work flat out in the way I used to. To have four hours or so of good brain, I have to take breaks. Slow the pace and more becomes possible. I still have to be careful not to wipe myself out, but pacing is clearly key.

I have to prioritise. I have to say no to things. I have to make the time to stop and recover.  It’s a lot to learn and is requiring me to identify and rethink a lot of beliefs I have about myself. I need to feel that I am allowed to rest, and I need to deal with the voices I have internalised that tell me otherwise. If I keep on as I was, I will likely get worse. If I can change things, there’s some hope of turning this around.


Why soothing is a problem

“There, there dear, don’t cry.” It’s the most awful thing to hear when you are crying. There’s no comfort in it, it’s just a very polite way for someone to tell you to shut up while feeling that they’re being nice.

If a person is crying, there’s probably a reason, and that reason isn’t solved by telling them not to cry. Most allegedly soothing and comforting interventions work in much the same way. Cheer up. It will be ok. Things aren’t as bad as you think they are. Don’t worry about it. It isn’t important. There’s no need to be this upset… All of these kinds of comments are a message to the person who is hurt to make the people around them more comfortable by shutting down their distress.

Make soothing noises, and you make it harder for a person to talk about what’s hurting them. Tell someone things are ok when they aren’t experiencing it that way, and you’ve just written over their experience, erased it, told them that their perceptions aren’t important.

We don’t all experience things the same way. We have different vulnerabilities, different histories. Things can be painful and loaded for a person with a history in a way that might never occur to someone else. If something doesn’t seem like that big a deal to you, that’s no measure of how it might make someone else feel. Imposing your response as the truth isn’t going to make them feel better, it’s going to make them feel like they don’t matter.

If you want to help someone who is suffering, start by taking them seriously. Validate their feelings – even if you think they are wrong, accept that this is how they feel. Start from where they are, not where you want them to be. If you want to help, find out what’s happening for them, and take it seriously. Don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel that way, or that it is unreasonable. Deal with the distress first and then maybe there will be space in which you can explore the thinking and experiences that led there.

If someone stops crying because you told them to, you probably haven’t comforted them at all. There’s a very real chance you’ve just persuaded them that you don’t really care how they feel. They may feel dismissed and like their feelings and distress don’t matter. They may have just had a clear message that making you comfortable by shutting up is the most important thing. Sitting with someone else’s pain is a hard thing to do, and soothing noises are easy to make and really affirming for the person doing that. You make the soothing noises, the sad person gets quieter, job done! Only the odds are you’ve added to their load, not lightened it.

Pain takes work. Sometimes it means being uncomfortable. If you aren’t willing or able to be uncomfortable in order to help alleviate someone else’s distress, it is important to know that and handle it honestly. It is better to say that you can’t help, than it is to shut the other person down.


When not to be positive

It is true that a positive attitude and a willingness to make the best of things can help a person in many situations. However, it isn’t always the right choice. Too much forced positivity distorts experience and cuts us off from our authentic emotions. We need to feel those ‘negative’ things as well, and they serve us in many ways.

Anger is protective. Good anger helps us hold boundaries and recognise when things are not as they should be. Anger is not necessarily violent or aggressive. Making room for it enables a person to take better care of themselves and everything and everyone they care for.

Grief and pain are the inevitable consequences of love. There is no love without loss, and there is no grief without care. You can’t have one side of this equation and not the other. Un-dealt-with grief just builds up in a person and will rob you of energy, or burst out in some sudden and uncontrolled way.

Resentment, envy, jealousy and bitterness don’t go away just because you focus your attention on something more positive. In my experience, the worst people for passive aggression and backstabbing are those who profess to be invested in love and light. If you don’t let yourself look at your less appealing characteristics, you won’t notice when you’re expressing them. If you don’t process these feelings and find ways to deal with them, the result is usually vicious.

There’s no such thing as a ‘wrong’ emotion. All feelings are valid. What we choose to do in response to them bears thought and scrutiny. The first emotional response we have is not necessarily the most authentic – it could be what we’ve been taught, or it could come from out of date coping mechanisms, for example. It’s better to make room for those feelings and find out what they are and where they come from.

It’s easier to be a more positive person if you don’t expend a lot of energy tying yourself in knots to try and deny the bits of you that aren’t upbeat and relentlessly cheerful. It’s easier to be positive if you have made space to deal with your baggage. It is easier to be kind and cooperative if you know how to make the space for grumpy, frustrated and unhappy feelings when they come along.


Knowledge, hypervigilance and control

Knowledge is power. In some situations, knowledge can be the difference between safety and danger, life and death.  And so, like many people at the start of the pandemic, I scrolled frantically looking for any information that would help me navigate.

I’m fortunate in that I’m fairly bright and decently educated and I know how to pick out good information from dross. I know how to read scientific content – I can’t read papers but I can get through a synopsis at least. I’m not unsettled by talk of probabilities- science rarely deals in certainties. I was looking for things that would shift the odds in my favour, and I found those – masks, ventilation, meeting people outside.

However, by the time I’d found what I needed, the habit of hypervigilance was back in, and I was also struggling to sleep. Hypervigiliance is not a new issue for me.  It’s a problem common for people who have endured bullying or lived with abuse. You pay attention to all the details, looking for signs of threat. When the rules change all the time, the goalposts shift, the hazards are unpredictable, when anger and blame can result from the slightest mistake, you learn to be hypervigilant to survive. And with the covid rules changing all the time, and the science evolving, I fell back into that, and it got into other areas of my life.

I found out quite by accident that I had been running high levels of hypervigilance for months. It explains the levels of body pain and exhaustion I’ve been dealing with. Being on high alert all the time is expensive. Scrutinising every detail is hard on the brain. Never relaxing, never feeling safe… it takes a massive toll and I’ve been doing it for months. Having broken out of the space where I was doing that, I feel hopeful that I can make a recovery. I’ve done it before, but this part of the process is challenging because I feel alarmed by not sifting for data all the time.

If you’ve found the last year exhausting, it may be that you’re in a similar process – with pandemic information, work upheavals, financial pressures and home schooling all likely sources of incentives to be hypervigilant.  Not seeing friends and family may mean you’re trying to divine from facebook posts how they really are. If some of them are vulnerable, this may be really hard work. If stepping away from the information sources is also stressful and scary, that’s a strong indicator of hypervigilance. It takes time to get over it, but knowing that the initial stages of breaking away feel awful may make it easier to navigate that.

If you’re going through anything similar to me, I wish you peace and calm. If the first steps towards that are hard, don’t be daunted, this is the way out. If you feed your brain less data to obsess over, it will eventually start to calm down.


Stories about love

When you’re a straight, cis person in a monogamous relationship, being out is easy. My guess is that you don’t worry so much about how people will react to your romance unless there’s something else queer about it – a sizeable age gap for example,  or being in a mixed race or mixed religion relationship where the people around you might not be ok with that.

I’ve always been polyamorous, but I’ve not always been out as polyamorous. Early on I had no idea how to navigate around friends and family with this, so mostly I didn’t. The emotional expense of being honest about your relationships may be more than you can afford. For some people, owning the queerness is genuinely dangerous. Complicated, non-conforming relationships can be challenging enough without all the work of having to emotionally support other people in dealing with you well.

The worst part of all this, for me, has always been the breakups. The invisible, unspeakable endings of relationships I never made properly visible in the first place. When a conventional relationship breaks up, people tend to own it and the people around them tend to be supportive. When you’ve fallen out with your other lover… how do you even talk about that? Can you be confident  of expecting support, rather than blame, shame, judgement and more pain?

Many of my most important love affairs have been romantic rather than sexual, so I don’t entirely fit in what many people imagine ‘polyamorous’ means in the first place. I can get deeply emotionally involved with a person without it ever being a physical thing. So, what a relationship is and means to me is not necessarily the same as what it means to the other person – that’s always interesting to navigate. I know there are people in my history who, for me, were life altering love affairs, and who almost certainly never thought the same way about me. Which is fine – love is what I do, not what I expect.

So here I am, grieving the end of a love affair that never quite was. Letting go of something that, for a while, was pure enchantment for me, but that maybe only existed for me. Wondering what to say to who, and finding out who knew me well enough to have spotted it anyway. It’s a strange place to be. There are no maps for this kind of territory. There are no roles readily supplied to slot into, there are precious few stories to navigate by.

I’ve also got to the point in my life of being unable to be other than myself. I’m too tired to hide the inconvenient bits. I’m past caring about people judging me – and increasingly willing to shrug and let go of the people who aren’t ok with me as I am. One of the consequences is that I can, and will start mapping this territory and telling stories about love that are not the stories my society usually tells.


Taking it personally

I’ve always been thin skinned. I’ve been told I take things too personally and that I over-react. This week it struck me that this isn’t a character flaw, it’s a coping mechanism.  I’m probably not alone in this.

If everything is going to be your fault, then being hypersensitive to criticism can help you catch problems before they escalate. If mistakes are punishable offences, you have to be hypervigilant around  criticism. What looks like being over-sensitive about things is an early warning system trying to detect threats before they get out of control.

This could easily become an issue for anyone with an abuse legacy, or who has had to survive in a toxic work environment. That thin skin is because you can’t afford to ignore any kind of negative feedback for fear of the consequences.

It has been a bit of a shock releasing that a large amount of how I respond to negativity is not necessarily who I am, but what I’ve learned to do in order to try and stay safe. I feel immensely threatened by criticism – and most of the time there’s no need. Most of the people I deal with will not punish me for real mistakes, much less ones they have imaged. Who would I be if I could take other people’s negativity in my stride? Who would I be if I wasn’t terrified every time I make a mistake?

It goes with the other coping mechanisms of over explaining and having to justify myself. It goes with having to check everything I do and feel to try and work out if it is reasonable and rational or not – and thus whether it might be permitted. Who would I be if I felt entitled to my own emotional responses and not like I had to be able to defend them?

Often, people who are thin skinned and easily upset are accused of being melodramatic and making it all about them. I’ve seen that one happen to other people as well as to me. I wonder how many other people who are knocked about by criticism react that way because it is a danger sign, a red flag, an ominous portent of far worse things to come?

I’m increasingly convinced that if someone seems to over-react, the key thing might be to focus on trying to make sure they feel safe. If you’re safe, you don’t have to be perfect in very possible way, you don’t have to psychically know what you were supposed to do without being told. When you are safe, another person’s bad mood or shitty day is not a danger sign, it’s just what’s going on. If you are with people who will not use you as a punch bag – literally or emotionally – then you don’t have to be hypersensitive to possible danger signs.

I may be becoming more resilient around this issue, because I have been safe enough for long enough for that to be possible.


Not being in control of your thoughts

CW abuse mechanics

There is a popular, but highly flawed positivity concept that goes ‘even if you can’t control anything else, you can control your thought and reactions’. It sounds good. It sounds plausible, and empowering, but it isn’t true.

If you aren’t familiar with the mechanics of conditioning, hop over and read this piece on Pavlov’s dogs – https://www.verywellmind.com/pavlovs-dogs-2794989

Conditioning is a process that trains minds and behaviour. The individual being trained does not need to be aware that they are being taught to react in certain ways. You hear the bell, you salivate.  Reinforced by rewards and/or punishments, conditioning teaches your body to respond without your brain even having to get involved.  If you’ve been taught this way, changing your responses is really hard. You have to first figure out what you’ve learned and what causes your behaviour and then you have to either unpick it or replace it. It is easer to replace conditioning with new conditioning, but the process of making new rules and enforcing them is a hard one.

If you’ve lived through abuse, or gaslighting then someone has trained you to respond to certain situations in specific ways. A lot of work goes into that training, destroying a person’s sense of self, their confidence, their ability to hold boundaries or say no. You can come back from there, but it isn’t easy. You can only control your own thoughts and responses after doing a great deal of work to rebuild your mind.

If you have PTSD then your responses to triggers are difficult through to impossible to control. Trauma impacts on you, and you are unable to escape it.  It may be possible to get some control over this – with time, safety, counselling, and a lot of work. For many people, the triggers never quite go away no matter how hard they try to fix themselves.

It’s hard to change your thinking and responses if what you’ve internalised is everything your culture reinforces every day. It’s hard to think differently without examples, role models, maps. Not impossible of course, but bloody difficult. Changing your thoughts is really hard if you have no idea what you could think instead.

You may not be in control of your thoughts and responses. If that’s true for you, then it is possible to change to at least some degree, but not in the way glib positivity statements suggest. Rebuilding, and retraining a mind is hard work and takes a long time. Dealing with learned responses that happen in your body is slow work, and painful, and the bigger the trauma, the harder it is to get over it.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that we have mammal bodies. We have our animal body chemistry, with the flight, fight, freeze and appease responses wired in. We have urges and hormones, and we won’t always know what’s going on with that. We should be able to control our responses so that those things don’t impact on other people too much, but we may not be able to control what goes on in our heads as the chemistry washes through our brains.

Be patient with yourself, you are a soft mammal, not a perfected thinking machine and sometimes being a mammal is a bit messy.


Emotional processing in challenging times

I’ve spent chunks of this last year numb, and unable to engage. I’ve had weeks where crying has dominated everything. Alongside this, I’ve had more trouble sleeping than usual – and usually I have trouble sleeping. My suspicion at this point is that there’s more going on than I am able to process. It probably isn’t just me.

My personal life over the last year has been like some kind of fairground ride with the infrastructure falling apart. Emotional highs and lows that have been unusual even by my standards. That, on its own, would have taken a lot of getting to grips with. But there was also the politics, the pandemic, the isolation, the loss of key things that support my mental health, and more body pain than I am used to. Again, much of this will be true for many other people as well.

It has impacted on my concentration – everything takes longer. Ideas are harder to find, decisions are harder to make. Not being able to process what’s going on makes everything new that happens that bit harder to deal with. It is difficult to find respite through distractions because often I can’t concentrate, and I’ve spent a lot of time stuck in my own head, with my overwhelmed feelings, largely unable to do much with them.

Sleep can be a good way of processing difficult things. Insomnia doesn’t help with that. Physical movement can be a good processing tool, but pain, weariness and lack of suitable space have been issues there.  We’ve been encouraged to stay indoors, sports facilities are closed, dancing is something you can now only do privately if you have the space.

Without any tools to use, the processing takes time. Some days, all I can do is sit there, with my mind scattered and let the distress roll through me. Where I can, I try and turn it into energy for creativity, but that’s actually hard, and often beyond me, and not required. It’s ok to use art for processing if that helps. It can be good to turn distress into action – but it isn’t a requirement, and there’s no failure in being unable to do that.

The thing that has served me most in this last year, is doing nothing. Allowing myself the time to sit, to curl up with my eyes shut, to be under a kitten, under a blanket, unproductive and present. Sometimes all I can do is sit with what’s happening and acknowledge my complete inability to get to grips with it. I have no idea how long this will take, but I am determined not to rack up extra difficulties by being too stoical, pushing too hard or expecting too much.